Biosecurity: Keeping Your Flock Healthy
How to keep disease out of your flock
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Biosecurity may sound like a hollow corporate catchphrase, but it’s a critical part of modern farming. Crop, greenhouse, livestock, and aquaculture farmers alike all understand the theory and importance of biosecurity, but the word hasn’t thoroughly spread to the small farm and homestead scene. Knowledge is power, so read on to up your farming game!
The word biosecurity was coined by the agricultural sector as early as 1993. Biosecurity in the sense that I’ll be discussing here is the overarching term used to describe the procedures farmers follow to prevent diseases from entering their farm.
Small flock owners should understand biosecurity theory and how to institute the basics on their farm. It’s the little things that make the difference, so let’s cover the standard procedures that you can do to prevent diseases from entering your flock.
When you bring birds onto the farm, it’s proper practice to isolate them from the rest of your birds, and I don’t mean letting them into the coop and using a dividing fence. You need to keep them as far from your birds as possible, preferably in a separate barn, garage or shed. Keep them separated for 14 days and watch for signs of illness. If they look good after 14 days, you can introduce them to the flock. This even applies to birds that came from an NPIP certified flock, and especially for chickens you’re bringing back from a poultry show.
Plan a Route
While these birds are isolated, treat them as if they were infected and visit them last when doing your daily rounds through the coops to avoid tracking disease from their coop into your regular coop. Additionally, plan to visit your flocks in a pattern; least potential of infected to most.
For example, let’s say you have three flocks. Flock one is a group of week-old chicks, flock two is your layer birds and flock three is a few adult birds a friend gave you that you have in isolation. The best group to visit first is your chicks because (assuming they came from a clean hatchery), they are the most likely to be free of illness and the most susceptible. The next flock would be flock two, then your riskiest flock, the birds in isolation.
Wash in, Wash out
Commercial high-risk flocks, such as laboratory birds, will have their barn operators enter their barn, strip, shower, then don clothing that exclusively stays in that barn. They have the facilities to do this, and it’s an extreme approach, but necessary for their operation. For the rest of us, it’s good practice to keep a set of clothing (or coveralls) and boots that you save for working with your birds.
Instead of a shower outside our coop, we can use a disinfectant foot dip-pan or, more pragmatically, a spray bottle with disinfectant. Wash any dirt and debris from your footwear and spray your boots with disinfectant to prevent tracking disease into your coop. It’s also good form to do the same as you leave the coop. I have a garden hose at the door of my production coop so I can wash boots, a brush to scrub with, and a spray bottle of Virkon S solution. I also have a pair of tall rubber boots I reserve for entering the barn.
My biosecurity plan includes restrictions on who enters my barns. For me, it’s too much of a risk to allow random people, especially customers with an existing flock at home, to walk into my barn. The easy way to avoid having a visitor introduce illness into your flock is not to let them in. If you can’t stand to do that, be sure your visitors have clean clothes that haven’t been in their barns and make them disinfect their footwear before entering. This procedure applies to people with pet birds at home as well, since pet birds can carry diseases and pests our chickens can acquire.
Besides being a pestilence, rodents, wild birds, and insects can bring illness with them, and they’re adept at moving disease from flock to flock. Rodent control measures fall under the broad umbrella of biosecurity and should not be ignored. If you have a big rodent issue, consider calling the professionals to help get them under control.
Your barns should be kept in good condition. Do your best to mitigate any potential for rodent intrusions, such as patching holes in your foundation or fence. Keep the grounds trimmed around your coop since tall grass invites pests to loiter. Don’t stack junk next to the barns; it harbors illness-transporting rodents. Cover eves and roosts that wild birds may use around your coops to dissuade them from hanging around. Don’t use wild bird feeders on the farm either, they attract (albeit beautiful) disease-transporting birds.
Before customers arrive at my farm to buy birds, I expressly tell them not to bring cages or boxes. Chicken crates and cages are seldom cleaned and disinfected correctly when coming from hobby farms. Theoretically, even if they were, I would have to sanitize them again before bringing them into my barn. I skip the whole issue by getting free boxes from the local package store. Using these boxes again is reusing something destined to waste, and serves as a disposable packaging.
Cages are only one example. Are you borrowing equipment, be it a shovel or a tractor? Maybe the neighbor lent you a pickup truck. In any case, the right thing to do is give whatever it is a wash and disinfect it before you use it on the farm; that way, you avoid bringing contamination to your farm. It’s also courteous to do it again when you return the equipment. This also applies if you lent out gear, and it’s being returned to you.
Watch your birds and observe changes in behavior. Do you hear a raspy breath? Is there a bird that looks depressed? Has egg production suddenly dropped? Why? Good animal husbandry and observing changes in your flock will help you identify potential illnesses as they start, and give your and your vet a chance to fix the problem before it can’t be fixed or spreads to another flock. If you have dead or sick looking birds, you can call the USDA APHIS bird hotline at 1-866-536-7593. The hotline will get you professionals that can help you understand what’s going on and advise you on what to do next.
Keeping your birds safe from infection is far simpler than fixing problems, much like changing your oil in your car is better than having it self-destruct on the highway. It’s essential to understand the theory of biosecurity, but I know that the realities of the small flock don’t always play well with the idea. Regardless, if you know the basic theory, you can establish your version of biosecurity that works for you. If you’d like to learn more, check out the USDA APHIS’s Defend The Flock campaign page for more information and tips on how to keep your birds safe.
Do you practice biosecurity on the farm? Is this all-new news to you? What steps have you taken to keep your birds healthy? Let us know in the comments below!
Originally published in the Backyard Poultry Special Subscriber 2020 issue — Comb to Tail Health — and regularly vetted for accuracy.